MAGUINDANAO, Philippines: Nearly three million Filipinos have registered to cast their ballots on Monday (Jan 21), in a historic vote to ratify the Bangsamoro Organic Law which seeks to create a new autonomous entity in Muslim-majority territories in the southern Philippines island group of Mindanao.
The vote is aimed at getting the country closer to ending the region's decades-long conflict.
"We are excited to vote. It is in our heart that the Yes vote will for peace," said Mindanaoan voter Baimon Kambal Makakua, as she scrambled to find her name in the voters' registration list while the polls opened at 7am, local time.
The Bangsamoro Organic Law was the legislation that emanated from a 2014 peace deal between the Philippine government and the country's largest organised armed group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
MILF had long been a chief player in the Muslim separatist rebellion in southern Philippines, with the interim 2014 deal putting a stop to four decades of insurgency.
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"Here in Mindanao, there's always conflict. In different areas, we experience conflict. Always. If the Yes vote wins, there will no longer be any conflict. This is our opportunity. We will no longer be afraid. This is our chance," Ms Makakua added.
The Commission on Elections expects a 75 per cent voter turnout from the participating territories.
The law being voted on Monday was enacted last year, but required that it be ratified by constituents of territories seeking inclusion.
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MILF was a breakaway organisation of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). The mother organisation MNLF had sought independence in the restive Southern island of Mindanao until 1976, when it entered a peace pact with the government.
This caused dissatisfaction among some members that led to the creation of MILF.
But the pact between MNLF and the Philippine government had led to the creation of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), which was largely considered a failed experiment for being unable to quell the armed rebellion in the region.
The new envisioned autonomous entity called the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) will replace ARMM.
The new entity will transition to its proposed maiden elections in 2022, when constituents will be able to vote its own parliament and a chief minister. Members of that transition authority will be appointed by Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte.
The fate of the peace process now lies in the hands of constituents eligible to vote in the much-awaited plebiscite.
The ratification of the Bangsamoro Organic Law will lead to the gradual laying down of arms of some estimated 30,000 MILF combatants in exchange for a socio-economic package that can enable them to shift to civilian life.